‘Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –’
– Emily Dickinson
For the lost children. And their mothers.
That’s what Grandma always said. See, hear and say nothing. Awake, in the small hours, eyes open in the middle of the night, the Girl wonders. In the cold March darkness – a sweet, dirty smell – she stares at the ceiling, tosses and turns, changes position, tries to edge closer to the other side of the room, out of reach of the Brother’s trusting sighs, over where the walls listen to the insomniac breathing of the Mother, who at last lets slip her scales, her masks, her differently textured skins, outlines that the Girl learns to distinguish. She watches the Mother and studies her. She compares her with the princesses in her stories, with the witches who terrify her. She would like to know more but can’t, there’s no way to catalogue that ButterflyMother’s metamorphoses, impossible to retain the beauty of her wings between her fingers, to guess when to hug, flee or stay silent.
Outside, the cats yowl. Dressed in the moon, they arch their backs. Their waving tails draw question marks that only she understands.
On weekdays, Mamá holds her hand as they walk to school. They hum the same old rhymes – an elephant stood on a spider’s
web – and Mamá asks if today her tummy hurts, or her throat or her ear; sometimes she swings her and lifts her up above the pavement of this old southern city. The Girl feels like she’s flying, poised mid-air; she strokes her mother’s arm and loses count of its constellations of moles. Mamá clasps the palm that finds shelter in the heat of her hand, infusing tenderness with the rhythm of each beat, holding the Girl’s fingers as if love could break them, singing lovely lovely, lovely, little hands. They walk together, their strides matching, two tin soldiers, two hearts in time. The Girl looks up and recognises curved eyebrows, a nose, a soft mouth, those ocean eyes that sometimes laugh, sometimes fill with water or sink into longings no one understands, on shores thirsting for shipwrecks. In class, the Girl will write mymamálovesme in her best handwriting and the teacher, for once, won’t insist she stick to the lines in her exercise book. The Girl writes correctly what she believes to be correct. She’ll think: this is Me. She’ll think: this is Mamá.
Later, Mamá picks her up from school, wraps her arms with their fragrance of flowers around her, takes her home. Mamá left food ready for her Brother, it’s still steaming; she gives it to him slowly, as if following a ritual: soft blow to cool it, mouth wide open, hangar for the little aeroplane that comes flying in, skilful little spoon between plump lips, napkin mopping the bit left at the corner of his mouth, ceremony repeated until the bowl is empty. The Girl asks why he doesn’t eat on his own. Mamá replies: he’s only Little. But she’s not convinced. She’s Little too and she’s grown used to the other days that can’t be named and which the Mother seems not to remember. Because the Mother wilfully forgets them, like you might hide a box in the attic, and pretends nothing is happening when the Other appears with her gas-scented perfume, when there are no more walks to school or songs or lukewarm jars of baby food for the Brother.
The Girls sees. The Girl hears. The Girl says nothing.
With no warning or sign, the Mother disappears or hides and then – two elephants stood . . . – what to do with so much on your shoulders, when Mamá suddenly stops being there because she turns into a motionless lump on the bed, there’s nothing left but a mute body that doesn’t respond or turn or react. At first, the Girl tries to entertain her by being silly, regales her with improvised gifts, paper aeroplanes that she folds and folds so they’re perfect, not a pleat out of place, not a wrinkle. Nothing works. The Other takes over everything, supplants the face, which the Girl scrutinises from afar. And the Girl rocks the Brother and sings nursery rhymes to him softly but stays alert, her senses are upright while she observes those still, glassy eyes. She puts the Brother down far away from the Other and closes her eyes so she can’t see that LizardMother any more. But then there’s the weight of silence on the house, one side of which never sleeps, while she hugs or clings to the baby and assures him that tomorrow will be a new day, that it can all change at any moment. You never know.
And the thing is Grandma went to heaven. No more low bun or bottle-bottom glasses, no more brown headscarf. Goodbye to the noisy kisses, to the tight hugs that squeezed and warmed her from the inside. Before that, a bald doctor talking to Mamá because a nasty creature, something like a crab, had bit Grandma and was making her ill, and the Girl there peeking round the door of that sad room which smelt of medicine, hearing ancient cries and prayers, a black rosary in Grandma’s gnarled root-fingers. Mamá cried in secret – be good you two, don’t make a sound. But some days Grandma called to her like before – come here and comb my hair, my Girl – and the Girl unwound her grey bun, the soft comb stroking her long, fine mermaid’s hair. By then Grandma didn’t talk much, her voice worn out and hoarse: do you know your mamá loves you more than anyone? – More than you? – Yes, more than me – except that sometimes she’s not herself, you must have noticed. And so the Girl learned: you have to look after Mamá, watch over your Brother and hide until it all passes – because everything passes – and then Grandma said: get your notebook with the cats on it, and the Girl, in neat handwriting: make sure Mamá takes the tablets, shut the windows properly, turn off the gas, see, hear and say nothing, and a list of important things she must nevernevernever forget. Grandma’s white eyes in the Girl’s memory. Alwaysalwaysalways.
Before that, long before, Papá – shouts and slammed doors – ran away from the round belly which foretold the Brother, from the Girl who would cry, maybe because of him, from that MillipedeMother and her lock-and-key faces: she tries to hide those faces from the world, protect them from the sun, shower the dark side of her moon with shadows.
Sometimes Mamá wakes up waxing; at other times, waning. The Girl follows and dances around her when she seems full, brimming, swollen with light. In a second she seems to stretch or shrug off a bad dream and there are moments of relief from the heavy weight pressing on the roof of that insomniac house. Happiness returns, the chance of levitating by simply wishing it, the joy of an instant that stretches out and persists in the Girl’s memory during silent hours, crouches on her lips, in her gap-toothed smile – Mamá, I lost another one! – and in her little voice, terrified of confessing untold truths, and the omens of an unwanted adulthood, her lost voice that sees, that hears, but says nothing, that shouts in a whisper don’t leave me, I’m Wendy, I don’t want to grow up.
But everyone grows up, even Wendy, even the Girl, though there are still days when she jumps into the bath with the Brother and they play with the rubber ducks and splash and roar with laughter, clean and unafraid. A distracted Girl who didn’t notice that today the
Other – the cold eyes – had turned up unannounced: the Other who opens her deep, yawning mouth, her oven-mouth that scorches and says ugly words, bad words, her angry gestures that shout and make the baby cry, her face like a mask that barks shut up, shut up, the two of you are going to be the death of me, I can’t take it any more, her vicious hands holding the Brother’s head submerged for one, two, three, seven seconds, his anxiety bubbling under the water, the Girl cries, please, Mami, no, he’s only Little, she gets up to fend off the claw-hands that shove her now, hard slap, stinging cuff, the thunder of the wall in her ears, her eyes cloud over and it aches but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter because the Brother is out, he’s finally out, he got his little blonde head out and watery tears are running down his face, there’s distress in his pale eyes, staring at the red string at the corner of the Girl’s mouth, the blood tastes salty but not to worry, not to worry, because VampireMamá soothes her, strokes her, kisses her, oh, myprettygirl, oneIlovethemost, what happened to you? and the Other retreats little by little. There are smells – the sweet, dirty smell of gas, the rusty smell of blood – that calm the Other so she lets Mamá come back to her children.
Outside, the cats yowl. Soaked in the night, they caress the windowsill. The dawn has split in two and their irises stain it green.
In summer, Mamá takes them to the swimming pool. The Girl loves swimming; she feels like a nymph in the water. When she dives in, she imagines wearing coral hair clips and a tail of precious stones. She does somersaults and stays underwater until her chest burns, enduring a noseful of chlorine and pruney, wrinkled thumbs and a trail of haphazard bubbles behind her. She takes it all gladly just to hear Mamá’s praise, to see her open, sincere smile, the rewards of a fractured happiness. But, playing chase through the water, she catches a hint of that expression – inert pupils, that savage absence – which she can recognise by now, and tries to camouflage her panic that Mamá might catch her, so she laughs or attempts a nervous giggle, her heart beating wildly, and when the adrenaline seems ready to force out a sob, she suddenly stretches her body out on the surface of the water. She plays dead. She floats on her back, closes her eyes and the light floods her with orange, allows her a blinking warmth, a peace that twinkles and flickers. No more fear. Afterwards, she goes back to Mamá or to the Other, to the uneasiness of the new moon. She makes an effort to kiss her, to love her unreservedly, to hug her without fear. She replies that no, nothing’s wrong, her tummy and throat and ear don’t hurt. It’s her mamá that hurts.